- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

BAQOUBA, Iraq — He is, even by Iraqi standards, an unlikely leader — a dentist from Manchester, England, whose only previous cause was supporting his local soccer club.

Yet Abdallah Al Jibouri, 45, an exiled Iraqi who spent more than 20 years in Britain, has turned his back on drilling and filling to become the reluctant savior of one of the Sunni Triangle’s most violence-prone trouble spots.

He originally had planned merely to check up on his elderly mother when he visited his hometown of Miqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, shortly after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.

His language skills, however, ensured that he was pressed into service as unofficial negotiator between U.S. troops and Iraqis, who elected him mayor.

Much to his astonishment — and, he says, to the dismay of his British wife, Sharon — he also became governor of the province of Diyala, with a population of 1.8 million.

Local insurgents have paid his leadership the ultimate backhanded compliment: They have tried to kill him 14 times and have put a $10,000 bounty on his head.

“I came for a visit two weeks after the liberation because I have got my mum and other family here,” Mr. Al Jibouri said. “I just wanted to make sure that they were all right. But I found the whole place was really a mess, with weapons everywhere, even little kids with machine guns.

“I began talking to the local sheiks and the U.S. Army, and we hired some police. I thought I’d go home then, but they said, ‘No, you’ve got to stay and help us.’ Of course it’s dangerous, and the wife back in Manchester worries a lot, but there are a lot of good people out here and they are worth it.”

By agreeing to become governor of Diyala in August 2003, Mr. Al Jibouri unwittingly walked into one of the toughest jobs in postwar Iraq. Sunni-led uprisings culminated in pitched battles outside his offices in the provincial capital, Baqouba.

The area is also home to the former Iraqi army’s national ordnance school, whose alumni gave a practical demonstration of their skills within days of his taking office.

“The first was a car bomb, and it blew my own vehicle to pieces,” he said. “I came out with my suit all in rags and covered in scratches, a bit like the Incredible Hulk. I wasn’t expecting anything like that, and it did scare me, but by the second one, I realized that if they wanted me dead that badly, I must be doing good things.”

Since then, Mr. Al Jibouri has helped to recruit a 5,000-strong police force and new Iraqi army units and has organized the construction of schools, houses, roads, courts and jails.

Locals, including those who initially dubbed him a “traitor who rode in on a British tank,” now visit his house to seek help and favors.

“He opens his house to all — common people, farmers, taxi drivers,” said Sheik Ibrahim al Jibouri, a neighbor. “He did not need to stay; he has a home in England and is well-off. But hard circumstances improve people: When you melt the gold, you get rid of all the blemishes.”

The assassination attempts on Mr. Al Jibouri have killed six relatives — tribal members who form a constant bodyguard around him — but that has not deterred him from wooing Sunni insurgents, granting temporary amnesty to enable them to attend “peace conferences.”

As a Sunni Muslim, he also obtained a “fatwa” from Islamic scholars in Baghdad requiring Sunnis in his region to ignore a boycott and vote in January’s elections.

Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the 3,000-strong U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which has just left the Diyala area after a year, describes Mr. Al Jibouri as a “brother.”

At a farewell ceremony last month, Col. Pittard gave him an engraved verse of the Koran, a Thermos flask, a polo shirt, and, in traditional Arab fashion, three kisses.

“He has no particular qualifications for leadership, but then neither did George Washington,” Col. Pittard said.

“He is very charismatic and has done some tough negotiating with Ba’athists. He just cracks a joke, gets them all to laugh and reminds them they are all Iraqis first. He brought leadership to this area just when it needed it most.”

Mr. Al Jibouri, who has two teenage children, has sold his dental practice in Britain and plans to stay in Iraq until Diyala is back on its feet. He hopes that his wife will visit soon.

“She doesn’t really want to come at the moment,” he said. “Obviously, Manchester is quieter, and you get no hassle. But, hopefully, soon this place will be better again.”

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